Taking it easy in Tallinn

We took a bus from Riga to Tallinn. It took about 4.5 hours but it was a double decker with food and drink service which was pretty neat. (We didn’t take advantage of the service though – we stocked up on sweet and savoury pastries from our beloved Rigensis before we left so we had plenty of food. Possibly too much. But that cherry strudel was WORTH IT.)

Like Riga, we spent four days in Tallinn (13-17 September). Tallinn’s old town is bigger than Riga’s but they definitely have their own distinct personalities. One small example of this is Riga’s old town is surrounded by a man-made moat and Tallin’s a wall dotted with those famous towers with the red pointed tops. On the whole things cost a bit more in Tallinn than they do in Riga but it’s still cheaper than most western European countries. Free wifi is extremely plentiful; almost every single place we stopped for food or a drink offered free wifi. And there are some preeetty cool places to do that in Tallinn.

Olde Hansa anticipation

Our top 10 favourites things and places in Tallinn:

  1. Free walking tour. You may be sensing a pattern here. ;) We don’t always kick off our stay in a city with a walking or cycling tour but they are such a great way to get your bearings and an overview of all the main sights. I tend to find the free (tips based) ones are usually more interesting than the ones with a set fee because you get more than just a standard script: personal stories, debunked legends, reliable recommendations and usually quite a lot of laughs.
  2. Olde Hansa. So, we did a Viking restaurant in Stockholm, why not a medieval restaurant in Tallinn? It was brilliant. Again, the staff really seemed to be enjoying themselves and the food and drink were original and exceptional. We opted for the mid-range banquet, which was quite a splurge at €40 each (plus drinks) but definitely worth it. Also, we got to taste bear (in a sausage with elk and wild boar). Highly recommended as a treat! (PS make sure you check out the toilets too! ;)
  3. III Draakon. The Third Dragon is a smaller eatery run by the same people as Olde Hansa, so if you can’t afford to splurge (or even if you can) you can get a taste of the same atmosphere here for a fraction of the price: all food is €1 each and all drinks are €2. There are only two things available to eat: elk soup and fluffy pastries; both delicious. Be prepared for a bit of an act from the staff – it’s all part of the experience!
  4. African Kitchen. Another tasty eatery and reasonably priced. African food with a good range of vegetarian dishes, and the cave-like rooms are decked out with some pretty cool decor.
  5. Must Puudel. A lovely and cosy cafe with lots of rooms and retro mismatched furniture. A great spot to stop for tea or coffee.
  6. Depeche Mode Bar. A must for any fans of the band and fun for casual listeners: non stop DM music and all the drinks are named after DM songs. It’s open late every night.
  7. Tallinn Backpackers’ Lahemma Day Trip. Even though we weren’t staying at the hostel that runs this tour we were able to tag along. A very fun day trip that takes you out of Tallinn to see ancient circle graves, the biggest waterfall in Estonia, an abandoned manor house, a giant bog park and a beach on the Baltic coast. We also got to have lunch at Viitna Kõrts, an excellent roadside tavern renowned amongst Estonians.

Jägala waterfall

  1. Tallinn design shops. Skip the tourist shops where half the items were manufactured in China and support genuinely Estonian handmade items and design. You can pick up a hard copy of the black and yellow map at an info centre, view it online, or just keep an eye out for any shops marked with a black and yellow D sticker in the window.
  2. Russian Market. Next to the main train station is a sprawling market filled with second-hand goods; cheap (not in a good way) new goods; and some fruit, veg and meat. Sometimes recommended to visitors as a dose of “shock tourism”, I can’t say it was particularly shocking by my standards but if you are interested in picking up some Soviet era souvenirs, or perhaps some broken appliances or strange forest mushrooms that looked like the kind in cartoons you’re not supposed to eat, it’s well worth a browse.
  3. Raeapteek. A very old pharmacy in a corner of the Town Hall square. You can buy conventional modern medicine there as well as some (fun but somewhat gimmicky and overpriced) medieval remedies. In the second room there is a small museum of old pharmaceutical items (entry by donation).

There are plenty of other things to do in Tallinn too: visit the Kiek in de Kök tower and tunnelsclimb a tower for a panoramic view of the city, visit the art museum housed within St. Nicolas’s Church, or check out any number of other museums or churches, but we enjoyed taking a break from hardcore sightseeing while we were in Tallinn.

Tallin's old town

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Across the Baltic Sea to Riga

More than a year ago a friend recommended taking an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Riga so we arranged this part of our trip specifically to incorporate it. The reason the crossing came so highly recommended is that unlike many ferry departures, you don’t just sail away from Stockholm out in the open water: you have a whole archipelago of islands to negotiate first. These islands are of varying size; some are quite large, some are quite small, and many are covered in cabins regardless of size. The ferry weaves its way in between the islands providing not only beautiful views against the sunset but also the occasional surprise, such as a couple of brave souls swimming off the edge of one island (on what was not a particularly warm autumn’s evening).

Stockholm archipelago

I do enjoy these ferry trips (falling asleep in one country and waking up in another is pretty darn cool) but a reoccurring theme is starting to grate on my nerves. While boarding our last two overnight ferries crew members wanted to take our photo (so we could buy a copy later). Now, I could understand this if we were embarking on some kind of big long cruise – but we’re not. We’re just taking a form of transport to get from A to B. We didn’t get dressed up for it – in fact we’re probably not looking our best covered in sweat and backpacks. No one tries to take my photo when I board an airplane, train or bus, so why should a ferry be any different?!

But maybe that’s just me being boring and difficult. :P

Minor gripe aside, it was a good journey and Riga turned out to be a delight. We had four days there (9-13 Sep) and took them at a relaxed pace, alternating between a bit of sightseeing and booking future travel arrangements. We also met a couple from (the Australian) Newcastle (Alex’s home town) on a walking tour and spent a couple of evenings with them swapping travel stories over delightfully cheap beer (a welcome change after Scandinavia!).

Old town square

If you’re in a hurry you probably don’t need four whole days in Riga but however long you decide to spend there here are the 10 things we enjoyed the most:

  1. Free walking tour. It’s kind of cheating to list this as one thing as it kills quite a few birds with one stone. The tour takes you out of the old town pretty early on and shows you some of the less touristy (but still historically interesting) parts of Riga.
  2. Old town. While it’s not especially old (most of it was destroyed and rebuilt after WWII) Riga’s historical center is picturesque (if you ignore the chain restaurants), compact and enjoyable to wander.
  3. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. A very sobering account of Latvia’s extended period of occupation: first by the Soviets, then they were “rescued” by the Nazis, then absorbed into the USSR until they finally gained their independence again in 1991.
  4. Saint Peter’s Church tower. Excellent views of the whole city and you don’t even have to climb 300 steps to earn it because there’s a lift.
  5. Rigensis bakery. A fabulous bakery in the middle of the old town. We ate here every day and still weren’t able to sample every different pastry and cake on offer.
  6. Lido. Delicious Latvian food with a kind of self service set up where you pay for each plate you take from the buffet. It’s a great way to try out lots of different things and it’s super cheap! There are several different branches but our favourite was Vērmanītis. (Avoid Alus sēta, it’s more expensive because it’s in the old town and they have less variety because it’s smaller.)
  7. Stock Pot. Cheap and honest international food perfect for lunch or a light early dinner. Get the full portion if you go for a soup but a half portion is enough if you get a rice dish.
  8. No Problem. A cool open air beer garden/bar in the centre of the old town with a huge variety of beers on tap and free live music.
  9. Albert Street (Alberta Iela). Worth a visit if you’re interested in art nouveau architecture but be prepared to dodge bus loads of tourists.
  10. Bastejkalns Park. A nice place to stroll on a sunny day. You can start at the Freedom Monument and follow the canal that surrounds the old city. If it’s a really nice day you could hire a pedalo or go for a boat ride.

Bonus points: Hobbywool is a lovely yarn and knitting shop marked by some pretty excellent knit graffiti out the front. They sell gorgeous Jawoll Magic Dégradé amongst other yarns, tempting Latvian mitten knitting kits and other lovely wooly things.

Stalin's birthday cake and the Central Market

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Travelling up through Slovenia and Italy

Slovenia came next on our itinerary after Croatia and was particularly exciting for the simple fact that we’d never been there before. It did not disappoint. We spent a few days each in the capital Ljubljana, the seaside town of Piran, and the famously beautiful Bled, ducking into Italy to see Trieste in between the last two.

Ljubljana

Everyone I knew that had been to Ljubljana said it was lovely but one or two days would be enough. It probably is if you just want to whip around the main sights, but we were enjoying our accommodation so much we could easily have spent more than the 3 nights that we did. I really do find that your accommodation plays a big part in your enjoyment of a particular place. Our accommodation in Ljubljana was our second airbnb venture and we were once again delighted. We stayed with a lovely person called Katja who has a beautiful flat walking distance from the train station and the centre of the old town and it was just nice hanging out and chatting about life. We did get around to some sightseeing as well though – nice things to do in Ljubljana are:

  • Wander around the old town, near the river. Particularly explore the cobbled backstreets which are almost pedestrian-only (i.e. watch out for bikes!).
  • Hike up to the castle (or take the funicular if you’ve run out of energy). You can get a pretty good view of the city but for the best view it will cost €6 to climb the castle’s tower. That ticket also gives you entry to a short film about the castle’s history and an exhibition about Slovenian history. If you don’t want to spend any money you can still wander around the rest of the castle complex which includes a few free art exhibitions.
  • Visit Metelkova, particularly during the day so you can take some good photos of the cool street art and sculptures.
  • Check out the Ethnographic Museum. This was recommended to us by a guy we met on the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana and it really is excellent – we spent several hours there and still didn’t see everything. (If you’re limited on time start on the top floor and skip the middle floor.)
  • Good places to eat: Julija’s is in a picturesque street and serves authentic Slovenian cuisine (some of the best goulash I’ve ever eaten – also try the zlikrofi). Svetilnik does huge, delicious pizzas – one between two is plenty.

Along the Ljubljanica River

Piran

It’s well worth the effort to visit the incredible Skocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran!

Piran is a popular summer holiday destination for Slovenians and Italians but apart from that it’s not particularly touristy. It’s a beautiful seaside town on a finger of land that extends into the Adriatic. It’s just nice to wander the narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with warm-coloured houses covered in wooden shutters, to stroll along the seaside promenade at dusk, or to climb the hill that leads up to the Church of Saint George at night.

We stayed at Miracolo di Mare, a B&B which was out of our normally very tight accommodation budget for this trip but there weren’t any cheaper alternatives available at the time. It turned out to be well worth it though for the friendly staff, excellent breakfast and perfect location. When we weren’t wandering around town we grabbed a spot on the concrete near the water’s edge and alternated between sunbathing and swimming in what is a contender for the best water we’ve swum in… ever. Super clear and full of fish and other interesting things to look at, plus you can swim out quite far and get some decent laps in.

If while in Piran you get tired of Italian-esque food you can get some cheap and filling Bosnian eats from Sarajevo 84.

Piran's harbour

Trieste

Normally you can get to Trieste from Piran by taking a bus to Koper and then a second bus to Trieste. But not on Sundays. Which is when we were trying to get there. We ended up with no choice but to take a taxi which we haggled down to €30 (the final price was €38 on the meter so we did pretty well). We later discovered that we could have gone by boat for only €7… ah well!

At first Trieste was a little disappointing after Piran, but it had grown on us by the end of our 2 night stay. Also, we found that a lot of the eateries are a cut above your standard Italian food. We had some excellent salads at a cafe near Piazza della Borsa (possibly the end of Via San Carlo) but unfortunately I can’t remember its name, which isn’t very helpful. Another place which I do remember the name of is Super Bar Stella, who serve generous toasted piadini and focaccie, but equally unhelpfully I can’t seem to find their address. Okay, but I can give you the website of a great place for dinner: it’s called Un Bacio Sul Canale (“a kiss on the canal”). They served us complimentary sparkling drinks (possibly Prosecco) to start as well as digestifs to finish, their menu was quite unique, and the food delicious (especially the homemade melon semifreddo ahh!).

Piazza della Borsa, Trieste

A nice thing to do in Trieste is to go for a ride on the Opicina Tramway, a unique combination of tram and funicular railway. (A similar experience to riding the #28 tram in Lisbon – but this one is even steeper!) Get off at the stop Obelisk (indicated by the big obelisk right near the stop – if you miss it you can easily get off at the less interesting Opicina terminus and walk back) for a great view of Trieste. If you have time and it’s not overbearingly hot (like it was when we were there), there are some lovely walking and cycling paths starting from Obelisk – one of them will take you to Prosecco in about an hour. If you want to ride, you can hitch your bike to the front of the tram and it will carry it up to the start of the trails with you.

There’s a long “beach” (concreate shelf next to the sea) a short bus ride from the centre of Trieste called Barcola but the water is quite rough and rocky. The same bus (#36) will also take you to Miramare Castle.

Bled

As far as Bled is concerned, this says it all!

Bled Island and Castle

It surpassed all my (actually rather high after so many recommendations from friends) expectations. It is such a beautiful place, and there is so much to do there and in the surrounding area. For a perfect summer’s day in Bled I highly recommend hiring bikes and riding up to Vintgar Gorge. Walk along the trail and back then ride back down into Bled and head for the lake. Ride around to the rowing club (Veslaški Klub Bled) and grab a spot on the grass to spend the afternoon. Whenever you need to cool off jump from the wooden decks into the clean, clear, fresh water. You could even try swimming out to Bled Island. Have a traditional Slovenian meal for dinner at Gostilna Murka then walk up to Bled Castle after 8pm when you can wander in for free and admire Bled’s twinkling evening lights.

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Visiting Škocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran

After a random guy on the train, our host in Ljubljana and a friend from Melbourne all raved about Škocjan Caves we decided we’d have to go there. Since the caves are situated roughly between Ljubljana and Piran, and Piran was our next destination after Ljubljana, they seemed like the perfect stop over on the way.

The actual logistics of achieving this by public transport turned out to be surprisingly complicated. In case you want to replicate our journey, here is the only combination of public transport I could work out where it was possible to make all the necessary connections:

08:12 - 09:49 train from Ljubljana to Divača
10:00 - 10:07 free shuttle bus from Divača station to the caves
11:00 ~ 12:30 guided tour through the underground canyon
12:30 ~ 14:00 self-guided walk following the Reka River through two more caves
14:00 - 15:15 kill some time at the info centre
15:23 - 15:30 last free shuttle bus back to Divača station
15:30 - 17:15 kill some time at Divača
17:19 - 18:08 train from Divača to Koper
18:30 - 19:16 bus from Koper to Piran

Divača station

Some things to bear in mind

  • Buy both train tickets in Ljubljana – the ticket window at Divača was closed when we got back to the station after the caves and I didn’t notice if it was open when we first arrived.
  • A train ticket for Ljubljana to Koper “via Divača” doesn’t seem to mean you can stop off at Divača and resume your journey later, you have to buy two separate tickets.
  • You don’t need to buy the bus ticket in advance.
  • The whole journey (2 trains and 1 bus) will cost you a bit less than €15 in total.

We looked at taking a bus direct from Divača to Piran, or taking a train back to Ljubljana then a direct bus to Piran, all to avoid the 2 hour wait at Divača station but the timing just didn’t work out. If you want to investigate it yourself or see if the timetables have changed here are the links you’ll need:

Slovenian train timetables
Free shuttle bus between Divača station and Škocjan Caves
Slovenian bus timetables

Luggage lockers

Once you arrive at Divača there’s just enough time to grab one of the only 3 luggage lockers on the station platform before you hop on the shuttle bus. (Only 2 of the lockers were functioning when we were there.) It costs €3 for the day but it only accepts €1 and €0.50 coins and there isn’t anywhere to get change. The lockers are not very tall but they are deep: we were able to fit 2 large travel packs and 2 normal backpacks inside without difficultly.

Lockers at Divača Station

If you can’t get one of the lockers at the station, lockers are available at Škocjan Caves – they’re not mentioned on their website but they confirmed it by email when I asked and I saw the lockers when we were there.

At the caves

When you get the info centre buy your tickets for the 11am tour (you’ll just miss the 10am). You might as well buy a 1 + 2 combined ticket because it’s only €5 more, you get to see more more cool sights, and you’ll need to kill the extra time anyway. (You can’t get to Piran any earlier than shown above!) To pass the time before your tour starts there’s a fantastic view of the collapsed doline a few minutes walk from the info centre (follow the signs).

The info centre has lots of tables and chairs, toilets, a cafe, a souvenir shop and free wifi. The food at the cafe is not cheap but it’s not overly expensive either. The food’s pretty good but the beer is very good. ;)

The canyon tour and additional walk afterwards are AMAZING… you can’t take any photos until the very end of the canyon tour (with or without flash) but here is a little teaser…

Exiting the underground canyon

I won’t say anything else, you have to experience it for yourself!

I love Croatia

So! Right now we’re in Trieste (a spot of Italy in between Slovenian stops) but the first stop on our 5 month journey from London back home to Melbourne was wonderful Croatia. With islands, national parks, excellent swimming, friendly people, cheap and tasty food and drink, Croatia has it all. We first visited and fell in love with the country on our big 2010 trip and wanted to return before leaving this part of the world, this time in summer so we could take advantage of swimming in the amazingly clear Adriatic Sea.

The first time we visited it was late autumn, which was not as conducive to swimming but the whole country is a lot quieter (and cooler, obviously – it gets very hot in summer) as well as cheaper and less touristy because it’s off peak. I think both are great times to go though – it depends on what you want out of your visit.

Places to go and things to see

  • Zagreb. The grand but unpretentious Austro-Hungarian capital is not as popular as Croatia’s coastal cities but if you have time it’s worth visiting for a day or two. Zagreb is home to all sorts of interesting and creative museums such as The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Typhlological MuseumPivnica Mali Medo is a fantastic place to eat cheap, hearty Croatian food and they sell their own brewed beer.
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park. You could visit Plitvice (pronnounced like plit-vih-se) in any season and it would be spectacular. 16 lakes feed sequentially into each other via a series of increasingly magnificent waterfalls, each lake a different shade of green or blue. It can be done as a stopover on the way from Zagreb to Zadar (or in the other direction), or you can spend a couple of nights in the area. If you do, it’s cheaper to stay in a guesthouse in Mukinje than one of the three hotels in Plitvice itself. Mukinje is in easy walking distance from Plitvice and the walk between the two through the forest is beautiful in itself.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

  • Zadar. Zadar boasts a beautiful old town right on the sea. There are lots of islands off the coast which you can visit by ferry – I particularly recommend Preko on the island of Uglijan (a 25 min journey, less than £4 return). You can see one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world from Zadar’s seaside promenade and if you walk all the way to the end you can listen to the soothing sounds of the Sea Organ and watch the Salute to the Sun do its thing after dark. I highly recommend staying at Kolega Guesthouse in Zadar!
  • Split. Quiet in autumn, Split gets pretty busy in summer. But it’s still lovely: the old town is housed within the walls of an ancient Roman palace! Split also has islands you can visit but they’re a bit further out (it takes 2 hours to reach the biggest one, Hvar) – we found it easier to go with a tour company that took us straight to some of the best spots.

Split's seaside promenade (Riva)

  • Trogir. Only about 40 minutes by local bus from Split and yet another beautiful seaside town. It’s historic center is contained within an island dwarfed by the next landmass out to sea. You can easily wander around in a day or you may like to base yourself here rather than in Split. (Both are roughly the same distance in opposite directions from Split’s airport.)
  • Dubrovnik. Ever popular, and for good reason. Its historic old town is surrounded by a fortified wall you can walk on top of and there are yet more islands you can visit off the coast. Look for the hole in the wall which leads down to a tiny bar called Buža clinging to the outside rock – drinks cost twice as much as anywhere else in town but the view, particularly at sunset, is worth it. You can see all the sights of Dubrovnik in two days – if you wanted to prolong a leisurely stay in Croatia you might be better off doing so in Zadar or Split which are cheaper for both accommodation and food. Two options that are great for cheap eats in Dubrovnik are Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal and seafood restaurant Lokanda Peskarija.

Dubrovnik's old city

  • There’s also the peninsula of Istria which we’ve never had the pleasure of visiting but have only heard good things. Pula sounds nice and Hum is official the smallest town in the world!

[our many Croatia photos]

While you’re in the area

  • Kotor, Montenegro. If you’re near Dubrovnik and you have time it’s well worth popping next door into Montenegro to see Kotor. It’s 3 hours by road and a stunning trip – the bay of Kotor is not dissimilar to a Norwegian fjord. (Sit on the right hand side of the bus from Dubrovnik-Kotor and the left Kotor-Dubrovnik for the best view.) Kotor’s old town is tiny and very cute. While you’re there you can climb the old crumbling city wall all the way up the part of the mountain the city nestles against. There isn’t much choice in the way of  hostels in Kotor so we stayed at the simply named Montenegro Hostel which is right in the middle of the tiny old town. Their fantastic “Big Montenegro Tour” is a must – you get to see the highlights of the country in a single day! Including views such as this one:

The Bay of Kotor

  • Bosnia & Herzegovina. We had a very memorable time in Mostar and Sarajevo which I think was largely down to where we stayed: Majdas in Mostar and Residence Rooms in Sarajevo. Half the fun we had in Mostar was hanging out and meeting people at Majdas, and if you go it is COMPULSORY to do Bata’s world famous, life changing tour. Hinden Han is a great place to eat in Mostar and Buregdzinica Bosna in Sarajevo serves the best burek… in the world. :D

Swimming in a flooded lake on Bata's famous tour

A note on transport

If you hire a car you will of course have more freedom but not having done this myself I can’t comment on cost or what the roads are like, but note that most of these old towns are pedestrian only so parking may be an issue. As far as I’m concerned, bus travel is the way to go in the Balkans. It’s cheap (£10-12 for Split-Zadar and Zadar-Zagreb, for example), efficient and well air-conditioned (a godsend in summer). You’ll pay a nominal fee to stow luggage in the storage compartment underneath – it might vary per bus company but seems to be pretty consistent at 7kn (about 70p) per bag. There are some train links as well but I’ve only used these to get out of the region (eg from Zagreb to Budapest or Ljubljana). There’s no rail connection to Dubrovnik at all so you’ll have to drive or bus it in or out of there.

A long weekend in Istanbul

You can cover all of Istanbul’s magnificent main sights in a healthy long weekend, especially since many of them are in walking distance of each other in the old city, Sultanahmet.

Things to see and do

“Free” walking tour (tips based). Lasts around 2 hours, there’s both a morning tour and and afternoon tour, no booking required, just turn up. A great introduction to the Sultanahmet area and its history.

Basilica Cistern. Entry 10TL. Magical. Make sure you go first thing (9am) to avoid a long queue and the crowds inside which would spoil the atmosphere. Skip the audio guide because the same info is available on signs. Recommended length of visit: 1 hour.

Blue Mosque. Entrance is free but donations are welcome upon exit. Open to the public even on Friday (the Muslim holy day) but closed to non-worshippers for at least half an hour after each call to prayer and longer at the midday call.  Recommended length of visit: 30min – 1 hour. You never get tired of just walking past and admiring it:

The Blue Mosque

Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia). Entry 20TL. Not open on Mondays. Quite fascinating: it started life as an Orthodox basilica, became a mosque and now functions as a museum. Be prepared to queue even if you go first thing.  Recommended length of visit: 2 hours.

Grand Bazaar. I expected this to be like the souks of Morocco but it was surprisingly modern even though the building itself is hundreds of years old. Almost no touting, too, which is nice. Worth a bit of a wander but after a while all the shops start to look the same.

Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. Smaller and cheaper than the Grand Bazaar, and I preferred it. Predominantly made up of spice, tea and sweet stalls it’s also surrounded by cheap places to grab lunch.

Spices, Egyptian Bazaar

Galata Bridge and Galata Tower. Exiting the Spice Bazaar you’ll find yourself in Eminönü, one of Istanbul’s many ferry ports. Walk across Galata Bridge and you’ll find men of all ages fishing all day long and can take a peek at what they’ve caught. After you’ve crossed the water follow the signs up a steep backstreet to Galata Kulesi (tower) which you can go up (12 TL) for a fantastic view of Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Asian side.

You could also…

Go to Taksim… but during the day I found it choked with people (imagine Oxford Street at Christmas then double the amount of people) and at night you have to dodge all the people trying you invite you to bars to sell you impossibly expensive drinks. (Mainly a problem for single guys – one of the guys in our hostel dorm had 6 different people try this scam on him in one evening.) The backstreets are more interesting than the main boulevard, so if you do go, go wandering into those.

Visit Topkapi Palace… but we didn’t, mainly because some friends said it wasn’t a must-see unless you had extra time to kill, and the line when we visited the gardens (which you can do for free) was hilariously long. We went to Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side instead. (Entry 20TL, includes free guided tour.) We got there by taking a ferry to Eminönü to Üsküdar and then a bus (but you could walk it from Üsküdar in about 30min).

Turkish experiences

Take a ferry instead of a Bosphorus tour. You can take a ferry to the Asian side from Eminönü for a measly 2TL and actually get off an explore the area (which is wonderfully tourist-free and not nearly as crowded as the old city), or you can pay anything from 12TL to €35 for a trip up and down the Bosphorus where you can’t stop and get off to visit any of the sights. Having said that, everyone I know that has done a Bosphorus tour did enjoy it, so really it’s up to you.

Go to a hammam. I spent a lot of time analysing reviews of Istanbul hammam on TripAdvisor and came to two conclusions:

1) The touristy ones are more expensive but perhaps preferable if you’re concerned about language barriers.
2) It seems a lot of negative reviews are from people that expected a bathhouse to be the same thing as a luxurious spa treatment and were sorely disappointed.

In the end I chose Süleymaniye because it had better reviews, a very helpful website, and was cheaper than the two big ones. I also liked that it allows couples to visit together because while I know that’s not traditional, it meant Alex and I could share the same experience. After what I’d read I was expecting quite an intense ordeal, but it’s not that dissimilar to the same kind of experience you’d have at a Japanese bathhouse (just with more sauna time). And maybe they went easy on me, but the scrub was no where near as painful as a pedicure I once had. Conclusion: very relaxing and you certainly feel clean afterwards!

Visit a tea house. Turkish coffee is famous worldwide but the local drink of choice is tea: normal black tea. (Apple tea is definitely worth trying though – it’s served very sweet and tastes like hot apple juice!) This place is right in the middle of the tourist district but the tea’s half the price anywhere else in the area (1TL vs 2TL) and it’s in the middle of an atmospheric cemetery. You can also share an apple, or perhaps rose and mint flavoured shisha for 12TL. It’s very authentic but (/so?) don’t expect fancy service – be quick with your order or the staff will move on! (But don’t worry, he’ll likely come back later.)

Turkish tea

Places to eat

Balkan Lokantasi. Self service, point-at-what-you’d-like, home cooked, super cheap, delicious. We had two meat dishes, one vegetable dish, bread, two drinks and two desserts for 20TL.

Sultanahmet Koftecisi. A short menu (kofte or grilled lamb) but done to perfection.

Sultanahmet Fish Restaurant. A bit of a splurge on a backpacker’s budget but very friendly staff (no touts – a good sign) and tasty seafood. When we visited they took one of our desserts off the bill and gave it to us on the house just because!

Pasazade. I haven’t actually been there (we just ran out of time) but a friend of mine enjoyed it so much she ate there twice on her visit to Istanbul.

Palatium Cafe. Another recommendation we didn’t get a chance to put to the test, but it sounds like a cool place to go: there are glass floors that allow you to see ancient ruins underneath and I think you might even be able to go downstairs to see them!

Durumzade. Too many good places to eat in Istanbul, not enough meals to try them all out. This place is reputed to serve  up perhaps the best kebabs in all Istanbul, although again, we didn’t get a chance to try them.

Lastly, find these boats in Eminönü next to Galata Bridge:

Fish in bread boat

They each serve up freshly grilled fish in bread with lettuce and onion for 5TL a pop. A wee bit bony, but delicious.

Practicalities

You will need to pay for a visa on entry. The price varies on your citizenship but is €15 for most countries. It’s best to have this ready in cash and note that for some odd reason Turkish Lira are not accepted.

We stayed at Agora Guesthouse and Hostel in Sultanahmet which is in walking distance of almost everything listed above (or a short tram ride if you’re tired of walking). Free wifi on every floor, nice big lockers in the rooms, good showers, excellent breakfast buffet, rooftop terrace and common area, helpful and friendly staff.

The metro, tram and furnicular system is limited but easy to use. Buy a jeton (token) for for each leg of your trip from one of the vending machines at the station. For example, to get from Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet you will need 2 tokens: one for the metro and a second one when you change to the tram. Each token costs 2TL and vending machines accept coins, 5TL notes and 10TL notes.  You can buy a bunch in advance so you’ve got them handy.

The other main method of payment is the Istanbulkart – you’ll need one of these to use the buses which don’t accept cash or jetons. (Unless a kindly passenger offers to swipe their card for you in exchange for cash!)

There is no direct public transport to Sabiha Gökçen, the airport on the Asian side, but you can get there quite cheaply by taking a Havataş bus from Taksim Square. (Allow approx 45 minutes to get to Taksim from Sultanahmet and 1.5 hours for the bus to the airport.) The Havataş bus costs 12TL – just hop on and buy your ticket on board.

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Budapest highlights

Stay at…

Lavender Circus. I’ve already raved about this cheap but lovely, eccentric and laid back hostel, I can’t recommend it enough.

Kitchen and common area

Shop at…

Front and Insitu. Both run by the same company and less than 5 min walk from each other (and Lavender Circus!). They stock cool tees, lomography accessories, funky jewellery, cool design-y bits and pieces, toys and and fun things like big wall stickers. There’s another cool clothing/tee shop next to Insitu as well but I can’t remember its name.

Retrock. There are two but the original one (on Ferenczy Istvan utca – also near Lavender Circus) is better. They have some new printed tees and lots of cool retro and second-hand clothes.

Szputnyik Bazár. Similar stuff to Retrock but bigger and with more retro clothes (also a bit cheaper).

Eat at…

Trofea Grill. It’s an all-you-can-eat restaurant, but quite fancy. But cheap! And the price includes unlimited alcohol! (Beer, wine or soft drinks.) There’s a buffet but they also have a live grill where you point at what you’d like and a guy grills it up in front of of you. It’s DELICIOUS and you get to sample a lot of different Hungarian foods (and other, generally tasty things). Go hungry! The staff are really friendly and they’ll explain how it works in perfect English. We went to the one on Király utca: highly recommended.

Alexandra Bookcafe, Andrássy út 39. The bookshop is lovely but go up to the top floor where the cafe is. It’s beautiful and once again, crazy cheap.

Great Market Hall, near Szabadsag Bridge. Try the Langos (pronounced “lan-gosh”) bread on the top floor. Unhealthy but DELICIOUS. The market is good for gift shopping as well – we bought some lovely lambs’ leather gloves for an excellent price (the seller knocked it down without us even needing to haggle).

Great Market Hall

Go to…

The baths. There are three main ones: Szechenyi, Gellert and Rudas (the Turkish one). We went to Szechenyi and it was fantastic. Huge. So many baths, indoor and outdoor ones. And lots of different saunas, including an aromatherapy and a light therapy sauana.

The Opera House. It’s actually cheaper to buy tickets to see a performance than it is to go on a tour of the inside, which is worth seeing either way because it’s such a beautiful building. The majority of tickets are less than AU$10 but if you leave it until an hour before the performance only the most expensive seats may be left which are more like AU$80.

House of Terror Museum. A fascinating museum about the Nazi and Communist occupations of Budapest and Hungary. It’s housed in the very building that those regimes were run from: the basement was used as a prison with rooms for torturing dissenters. The whole exhibition is very well designed with visuals and sound combining to form a powerful experience. We spent about 3 hours there.

Memento Park. Home to giant, intimidating statues which lived in the centre of Budapest during its Communist occupation. It’s a bit outside of town – you can take public transport or you can pay a bit more and take the organised bus.

St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. Walk across the Chain Bridge and up the stairs (or take the funicular if you’re a bit footsore). At the top are St Matthias Church with its beautiful tiled roof and Fisherman’s Bastion, like a fairytale castle with beautiful turrets. It also offers a great view of the famous Parliament Building on the other side of the Danube.

Fisherman's Bastion

Other things to see…

  • Andrássy Avenue (where Alexandra Bookcafe, the Opera House and the House of Terror are) is Budapest’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées and is nice to stroll down.
  • Ride the yellow meto line. Budapest is quite walkable but this is the second oldest metro line in the world (after the London Underground) and it’s worth seeing for its charming carriages. It follows Andrássy street and it’s only 1 or 2 metres underneath the surface!
  • Vajdahunyad Castle near Szechenyi baths. It’s like a hodgepodge of different castles smooshed together into a random mixed up building.
  • Ngyugati Station, designed by Gustave Eiffel.
  • The McDonalds next to Ngyugati Station. Said to be the most beautiful McDonalds in the world (although I think the one in Porto is a strong rival for that title).

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